Turbine rules are too much to tackle in one meeting; Huron County planners discuss sound levels, flicker
BAD AXE – Clark Brock, the county planning commission chairman, came to a realization Wednesday.
“We are not going to get through this document tonight,” he said, after planners spent more than two hours forging through proposed new rules governing wind turbines.
He was right.
For more than 18 months, a committee worked to overhaul the county’s 2010 wind energy ordinance. On Wednesday, planners gave their first full review of the draft.
They made it halfway through the 22-page document.
What first came into question was the tradeoff of having an ordinance easily understandable to the public, or one with complex language and methodology that could hold up in court. Though mostly straightforward, some changes make vague references while other areas are thick with detail and terminology, as advised by consultants and the county’s attorney.
“This is the Reader’s Digest version,” Member Dave Peruski said.
That said, planners started turning the pages, making general comments and little change.
They agreed developers should document work with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and its voluntary wind energy guidelines. “Shoreline protection” would restrict turbines from being closer than three miles to the shores of Lake Huron and Saginaw Bay.
“This language right here would guarantee they’re working with Fish and Wildlife,” Jeff Smith, the county’s building and zoning director, said.
The three-mile barrier drew opposition from one member, Joel Weber, who said there should be some restriction but not three miles. Others passed over the section quietly without comment.
Next came turbine setbacks from inhabited houses. Planners agreed to an increase of 1,000 feet in the 2010 ordinance to 1,320 feet for those participating in a wind project. In a split straw vote, they agreed to up the previous minimum from 1,320 feet to 1,640 feet for those not participating.
Planners did not oppose increasing setbacks from public roads – the new rule would bump it from 400 to 500 feet – or capping turbine height at 499 feet.
Smooth sailing. Then the noise came.
Almost half of the 22-page draft details a difficult and time-consuming prospect – setting rules for sound from wind turbines. A three-column chart showing four entries for decibel limits, for example, found planners struggling to understand and come to agreement.
Brock, who was on the committee that drafted ordinance revisions, said there were many times when committee work became confusing. A sound consultant from Epsilon Associates Inc. – which works with Florida-based developer NextEra Energy – chimed in along with other consultants, at Brock’s request, with expertise.
“ … And I’m not sure that people sitting here can make me completely understand it either,” he said.
Smith said the committee put lower sound regulations than what were recommended by sound consulting firm Acoustics By Design, which conducted night and daytime testing of turbines.
To illustrate a point, he brought a sound level meter to the meeting. With the hum of a computer and air conditioning in the room, and none of the 25 to 30 people talking, he said it read 50 decibels – the limit turbines must meet from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. as heard at participating parcels.
“I do know that losing sleep is a problem,” Peruski said of noise complaints from residents in his district, which, as a county commissioner, includes the village of Ubly, Bingham, Grant, Paris, Sheridan and Sherman townships.
Planners made minor changes after making it through only one of 10 pages added for sound regulations before deciding to call it quits.
However, they disagreed on a visual aspect.
Rules for shadow flicker – a phenomenon caused by turbine blades slicing sun rays to create shadows on walls, homes and land at specific times of day – were not included in the 2010 ordinance. A new limit would restrict flicker to 30 hours per year for those who participate in a wind project, and 10 hours for those not participating.
Member Joel Weber asked who would monitor shadow flicker.
“When a government body starts regulating shadows … we’re talking about a shadow,” Weber said, citing, as a similar example, shadows from a flag waving in the wind becoming a bother to someone.
Weber disagreed with stricter rules on shadow flicker, which he wrote off as simply preventing someone from “enjoying their coffee in the morning.”
Member Carl Duda was more decisive.
“They ain’t got a contract. They shouldn’t have to deal with shadow flicker,” Duda said.
Developers have turned turbines off temporarily when shadow flicker occurs. It solves the problem most times, according to Smith, who said he’s received only a couple formal complaints from residents.
Planners took a straw vote to either keep shadow flicker limits at 10 hours for those not participating, up it to 30 hours or not allow any shadow flicker. The majority agreed to change it to 30 hours.
More review is scheduled during a special meeting 7 p.m. Thursday, July 16. Planners will need to set a public hearing before the revised wind ordinance can move forward to county commissioners, who will then approve the changes or send them back to planners.
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